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The meaning of Reuben in the Bible
(From International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)

roo'-ben, ru'-ben (re'ubhen; Rhouben): The eldest son of Jacob, born to him by Leah in Paddan-aram (Genesis 29:32).

1. Jacob's Oldest Son:

This verse seems to suggest two derivations of the name. As it stands in Massoretic Text it means "behold a son"; but the reason given for so calling him is "The Lord hath looked upon my affliction," which in Hebrew is ra'ah be'onyi, literally, "He hath seen my affliction." Of his boyhood we have only the story of the mandrakes (Genesis 30:14). As the firstborn he should really have been leader among his father's sons. His birthright was forfeited by a deed of peculiar infamy (Genesis 35:22), and as far as we know his tribe never took the lead in Israel. It is named first, indeed, in Numbers 1:5, Numbers 1:20, but thereafter it falls to the fourth place, Judah taking the first (Numbers 2:10, etc.). To Reuben's intervention Joseph owed his escape from the fate proposed by his other brethren (Genesis 37:29). Some have thought Reuben designed to set him free, from a desire to rehabilitate himself with his father. But there is no need to deny to Reuben certain noble and chivalrous qualities. Jacob seems to have appreciated these, and, perhaps, therefore all the more deeply lamented the lapse that spoiled his life (Genesis 49:3 f.). It was Reuben who felt that their perils and anxieties in Egypt were a fit recompense for the unbrotherly conduct (Genesis 42:22). To assure his father of Benjamin's safe return from Egypt, whither Joseph required him to be taken, Reuben was ready to pledge his own two sons (Genesis 42:37). Four sons born to him in Canaan went down with Reuben at the descent of Israel into Egypt (Genesis 46:8 f.).

The incidents recorded are regarded by a certain school of Old Testament scholars as the vague and fragmentary traditions of the tribe, wrought into the form of a biography of the supposed ancestor of the tribe. This interpretation raises more difficulties than it solves, and depends for coherence upon too many assumptions and conjectures. The narrative as it stands is quite intelligible and self-consistent. There is no good reason to doubt that, as far as it goes, it is an authentic record of the life of Jacob's son.

2. Tribal History:

At the first census in the wilderness Reuben numbered 46,500 men of war (Numbers 1:21); at the second they had fallen to 43,730; see NUMBERS. The standard of the camp of Reuben was on the south side of the tabernacle; and with him were Simeon and Gad; the total number of fighting men in this division being 151,450. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan says that the standard was a deer, with the legend "Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God is one Lord." On the march this division took the second place (Numbers 2:10 ff.). The prince of the tribe was Elizur ben Shedeur, whose oblation is described in Numbers 7:30 ff. The Reubenite among the spies was Shammua ben Zaccur (Numbers 13:4). It is possible that the conspiracy against Moses, organized by the Reubenites Dathan and Abiram, with the assistance of Korah the Levite (Num. 16), was an attempt on the part of the tribe to assert its rights as representing the firstborn. It is significant that the children of Korah did not perish (Numbers 26:11). May not the influence of this incident on Moses' mind be traced in his "blessing," wishing for the continuance of the tribe, indeed, but not in great strength (Deuteronomy 33:6)? This was a true forecast of the tribal history.

When the high plateau East of the Dead Sea and the Jordan fell into the hands of the Israelite invaders, these spacious pastoral uplands irresistibly attracted the great flock-masters of Reuben and Gad, two tribes destined to be neighbors during succeeding centuries. At their earnest request Moses allowed them their tribal possessions here subject to one condition, which they loyally accepted. They should not "sit here," and so discourage their brethren who went to war beyond the Jordan. They should provide for the security of their cattle, fortify cities to protect their little ones and their wives from the inhabitants of the land, and their men of war should go before the host in the campaign of conquest until the children of Israel should have inherited every man his inheritance (Num. 32:1-27). Of the actual part they took in that warfare there is no record, but perhaps "the stone of Bohan the son of Reuben" (Joshua 15:6; Joshua 18:17) marked some memorable deed of valor by a member of the tribe. At the end of the campaign the men of Reuben, having earned the gratitude of the western tribes, enriched by their share of the spoils of the enemy, returned with honor to their new home. Along with their brethren of Gad they felt the dangers attaching to their position of isolation, cut off from the rest of their people by the great cleft of the Jordan valley. They reared therefore the massive altar of Ed in the valley, so that in the very throat of that instrument of severance there might be a perpetual witness to themselves and to their children of the essential unity of Israel. The western tribes misunderstood the action and, dreading religious schism, gathered in force to stamp it out. Explanations followed which were entirely satisfactory, and a threatening danger was averted (Jos. 22). But the instincts of the eastern tribes were right, as subsequent history was to prove. The Jordan valley was but one of many causes of sundering. The whole circumstances and conditions of life on the East differed widely from those on the West of the river, pastoral pursuits and life in the open being contrasted with agricultural and city life.

The land given by Moses to the tribe of Reuben reached from the Arnon, Wady el-Mojib, in the South, to the border of Gad in the North. In Numbers 32:34 cities of Gad are named which lay far South, Aroer being on the very lip of the Arnon; but these are probably to be taken as an enclave in the territory of Reuben. From Joshua 13:15 ff. it is clear that the northern border ran from some point North of the Dead Sea in a direction East-Northeast, passing to the North of Heshbon. The Dead Sea formed the western boundary, and it marched with the desert on the East. No doubt many districts changed hands in the course of the history. At the invasion of Tiglath-pileser, e.g., we read that Aroer was in the hands of the Reubenites, "and eastward .... even unto the entrance of the wilderness from the river Euphrates" (I Chronicles 5:8 f.). Bezer the city of refuge lay in Reuben's territory (Joshua 20:8, etc.). A general description of the country will be found under MOAB; while the cities of Reuben are dealt with in separate articles.

Reuben and Gad, occupying contiguous districts, and even, as we have seen, to some extent overlapping, are closely associated in the history. Neither took part in the glorious struggle against Sisera (Judges 5:15 ff.). Already apparently the sundering influences were taking effect. They are not excepted, however, from "all the tribes of Israel" who sent contingents for the war against Benjamin (Judges 20:10; Judges 21:5), and the reference in Judges 5:15 seems to show that Reuben might have done great things had he been disposed. The tribe therefore was still powerful, but perhaps absorbed by anxieties as to its relations with neighboring peoples. In guarding their numerous flocks against attack from the South, and sudden incursions from the desert, a warlike spirit and martial prowess were developed. They were "valiant men, men able to bear buckler and sword, and to shoot with bow, and skillful in war" (I Chronicles 5:18). They overwhelmed the Hagrites with Jetur and Naphish and Nodab, and greatly enriched themselves with the spoil. In recording the raid the Chronicler pays a compliment to their religious loyalty: "They cried to God in the battle, and he was entreated of them, because they put their trust in him" (I Chronicles 5:19 ff.). Along with Gad and Manasseh they sent a contingent of 120,000 men "with all manner of instruments of war for the battle, .... men of war, that could order the battle array," men who "came with a perfect heart to Hebron, to make David king" (I Chronicles 12:37 f.). Among David's mighty men was Adina, "a chief of the Reubenites, and thirty with him" (I Chronicles 11:42). In the 40th year of David's reign overseers were set over the Reubenites "for every matter pertaining to God, and for the affairs of the king" (I Chronicles 26:32). Perhaps in spite of the help given to David the Reubenites had never quite got over their old loyalty to the house of Saul. At any rate, when disruption came they joined the Northern Kingdom (I Kings 11:31).

The subsequent history of the tribe is left in much obscurity. Exposed as they were to hostile influences of Moab and the East, and cut off from fellowship with their brethren in worship, in their isolation they probably found the descent into idolatry all too easy, and the once powerful tribe sank into comparative insignificance. Of the immediate causes of this decline we have no knowledge. Moab established its authority over the land that had belonged to Reuben; and Mesha, in his inscription (M S), while he speaks of Gad, does not think Reuben worthy of mention. They had probably become largely absorbed in the northern tribe. They are named as suffering in the invasion of Hazael during the reign of Jehu (II Kings 10:32 f.). That "they trespassed against the God of their fathers, and played the harlot after the gods of the peoples of the land" is given as the reason for the fate that befell them at the hands of Pul, king of Assyria, who carried them away, "and brought them unto Halah, and Habor, and Hara, and to the river of Gozan" (I Chronicles 5:25 f.).

The resemblance of Reuben's case to that of Simeon is striking, for Simeon also appears to have been practically absorbed in the tribe of Judah. The prestige that should have been Reuben's in virtue of his birthright is said to have passed to Joseph (I Chronicles 5:1). And the place of Reuben and Simeon in Israel is taken by the sons of Joseph, a fact referred to in the blessing of Jacob (Genesis 48:5).

Ezekiel finds a place for Reuben in his picture of restored Israel (Genesis 48:6). He appears also—in this case preceded by Judah only—in Revelation 7:5.

W. Ewing


See more on the meaning of Reuben in the Bible:
Reuben {Easton's Bible Dictionary}
Reuben {Hitchcock's Bible Name}

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